Cope’s choices

2010-05-25 00:00

ALL parties formed as broad-based movements, built on converging interests of the underclass and other classes, are bound to run into troubles created by centrifugal impulses that develop as inherent contradictions become antagonistic. But, as the history of the African National Congress thus far demonstrates, it is not always certain that this will lead to a parting of ways between major factions.

The outcome of the past 18 months of internal divisions, tactical blunders and strategic errors in Cope will depend on how the young party responds to its challenges. So far, it has moved from denial to open conflict fought through the public media. Earlier on, the party leadership tried hard to project an image of a party united in its pursuit of deeper democracy. It not only underestimated its difficulties, but it also exaggerated its strengths, at one point claiming a membership of 500 000 people. The ill-advised choice of Mvume Dandala as a presidential candidate confused many and divided the party, but the party denied this.

In recent weeks, the deep divisions within Cope leadership about how internal democracy and its organisation should be managed have come out in a public war of words between a camp led by Mosiuoa Lekota, Smuts Ngonyama­ and Philip Dexter, and another led by Mbhazima Shilowa, Mluleki George and Charlotte Lobe. Provincial and branch leaders are also divided, as is the general membership.

The Shilowa express is in charge for now, given its control of the party leadership machinery and given the fact that its members are frontrunners for most of the leadership positions going into the disputed national congress in Pretoria this weekend. This camp wants the congress to be held, notwithstanding many questions hanging over the party’s state of readiness, and is making a show of “all things in order”.

On the other hand, the Lekota group is so determined to have the conference postponed that it is raising all manner of concerns to justify its call. This includes the fact that the audit of the party’s parliamentary finances to determine if Shilowa had embezzled R20 million, as has been alleged, is not yet complete.

Shilowa’s group is, in essence, not only rejecting Lekota, but also what he represents. The question is what will be done to ensure that Lekota supporters do not push him to serve divorce papers on Cope, something he has done before when he left the ANC and should be able to repeat without much difficulty.

Lekota will probably feel robbed of a chance to consolidate the work he courageously started. He may feel betrayed by the people he attracted to the young party and deserted by the people who extolled him just over a year ago.

On the other hand, the Shilowa express is cruising and Lekota backers will jealously dismiss this as a gravy train. Shilowa is understood to envision a professional party positioned to attract the growing middle class, while maintaining some grass-roots support. This is the idea of a party similar to centre-left parties in the West. They are run like businesses. So, we should expect fewer rallies and public meetings, if at all, but more correspondence via press conferences, IT platforms and through party structures. With the Lekota side likely to fail if the May 27 to 29 congress does take place, this is the likely route of a Shilowa-led Cope.

The party leadership will have to overcome the inherent challenge of having a “professional”, if corporatised party, in a medium-sized economy with millions of unemployed youth and poor families. The middle class is a small and unreliable constituency. Often, the politics of the petit bourgeoisie interests trounce values and principles. They want to know what is in it for them and are unable to stick to one party. A professional party must respond to these class dynamics and be willing to compromise on matters of principle and value.

The Shilowa express must also be open to the possibility that the middle class might not join the party as expected. Worse, in the process of consolidating its power along the lines anticipated above, the new party leadership will most certainly lose the working class and the poor. A modern party must, therefore, reach out and accommodate voters beyond its class base.

However, I am open to the possibility that the elective congress may not happen or, if it does, it still votes into power Lekota and his followers. A Lekota-style party would most probably continue to build a multiclass broad-church, a tradition learnt in the ANC. Such a party must also contend with the fact that attracting the disgruntled poor, while keeping the middle class happy, generates frequent contradictions in policy and internal politics that could drain the young organisation’s limited energy. This will require a pluralistic and mature leadership, which means that Cope dare not marginalise the Shilowa express.

Both choices are risky. The challenge is for Cope to decide what it will do to anticipate and mitigate the impact of these problems.

The most likely outcome at the moment is victory for the Shilowa express, which will most certainly be disputed by the Lekota group. This may lead to legal contests, which will tarnish Cope’s image. Under these conditions, it is likely to remain a small and gradually weakening party. However, the result could be different, depending on how current leadership divisions are managed.


• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.


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